Art. Fables. Memory.
War Crimes. Complicity.
A new film
As COVID-19 swept across the globe, I finished a play called The Drowned Girl.
Eventually, during the crucible of the pandemic, that play became a film script.
The Drowned Girl explores the complicity of art in totalitarianism and mass slaughter as viewed through the Nazi film industry. It also examines how gender and marriage play out in the making of art.
Yet perhaps the central current of the film is a meditation of the relationship of history and fable.
As the final surviving victims of the Holocaust pass from our midst, the process by which memory is transformed, softened, blurred, or even erased is a vexing question. The strategies of art – and the human urge to (over)simplify – combine and conspire with familiar legends and motifs and literature to revise or reinvent even the darkest chapters of human experience.
The Drowned Girl grapples with the difficult questions raised by history’s tendency to slip into fable. When the river of evidence about the horrors of the Holocaust comes into confluence with Goethe, or Shakespeare, or German legends of water spirits, what happens to memory? Is history doomed to be shaped by these forces? Or do we retain the power to (re)shape fables with our own truth and our own artistic powers, so that the memory of evil burns always at the center of any retelling?
Months after we shot The Drowned Girl, I came across this passage from Gregor von Rezzori’s extraordinary work, Abel and Cain:
“The dropsical air carried it to him, in gull shrieks expelled wildly into nothingness, weaving the emptiness of eternity on gull wings—a nightmare carnival: Pierrots shooting clownishly to and fro and up and down, crossing, chasing one another, reeling, plunging, now surrounded by powdery whirls of snowflakes, now streaked obliquely with strands of rain. He could hear it in the city’s din, which surged restlessly like the straying wind, now and again punctuated by the walrus bellow of a ship’s siren, haunted by ghosts of the past. He heard it in the constricted voices, the faded intonations, the crumbling speech of the people he passed during his constant, futile walks: pale blond men and women who looked at him with eyes of faded blue in which blank uncomprehending amazement froze into the enigmatic gaze of nixies. Estrangement stood between him and them, and this strange place to which they were together condemned did not unite them.”
I had a shock of powerful recognition as I read this evocation of my own project in words published by von Rezzori in the 1970s: The nightmare carnival. Faded intonations. Crumbling speech. This strange place to which they were together condemned.
And, yes, the enigmatic gaze of a nixie – who was once an actress, long ago, and still uncomprehending – that confronts the viewer throughout the film.
The Drowned Girl was shot between September and December 2021 in Washington, DC, Jersey City and Paterson, NJ, as well as in Manhattan and Brooklyn. We shot it with the safety of our performer and the rest of the team as a top priority.
Annalisa Loeffler plays The Drowned Girl. Andrew Bellware directed and composed music for the film. Paula D’Alessandris was the project’s performance director. Laura Schlachtmeyer produced the film.
(Above, right: The writer on The Downed Girl set in Paterson, NJ.)